The whole Bible gives us a picture of (usually) unseen spiritual powers at work throughout the world, some representing God and working to advance his will, others opposing God. The ‘good’ spirits are generally referred to as angels, and the ‘evil’ spirits are demons. A development through the Bible is that Satan or the Devil is increasingly regarded as the ‘leader’ of the demons. Sometimes pagan gods are called demons in the Old Testament, and the New Testament picks this up in its assumption that demons stand behind the idols of the ancient world.
In the twenty-first century West, there is a tendency not to talk about angels or demons very much, even within the church. That is mainly because our culture is materialistic and naturalistic – that is, what we can see is all there is, and what happens can be fully explained by natural causes. In Christian circles, of course, there is at least a theoretical knowledge that this isn’t so – God is a spiritual being who interacts with the world! But we have absorbed enough from our culture to feel uncomfortable with the idea of angels and demons active around us. It all sounds a bit fairy-tale, and we worry that we won’t be taken seriously.
There’s another reason to feel awkward about talking about demons especially. Increasingly we are becoming aware that in different cultures – and in segments of our own – people who are accused of being demon possessed are abused and mistreated. There have been several horrific stories involving children. Certainly we don’t want to be implicated in things like that.
A few things to say about the Bible’s teaching on demons:
1. Demons are real and powerful. You can’t read the Bible and avoid the reality of evil spiritual forces.
2. Demons are fallen creatures. The spiritual forces of evil – and even Satan himself – are God’s creatures, albeit fallen and horribly twisted. We must say that they were created good, because God does not create anything evil. We can also say that because they are creatures they are not in any sense equal with God.
3. Demons are against humanity. When we see demonic activity in the Bible, it is always geared towards enslaving and dehumanising God’s human creations. The Bible says nothing about human beings colluding with demons; when Jesus casts out demons from people, the people themselves are always seen as victims.
4. Demons are powerless before Jesus. In the storyline of the Bible, by far the most demonic activity is clustered around Jesus. It makes sense that the evil spirits would want to oppose Jesus. But in story after story, Jesus drives out demons with just a word. They can’t stand up to him. Nor can they stand up to his disciples, when they are acting in dependence and faith.
Practically, there are a few helpful things we can say:
1. When we see evil in the world, we should acknowledge that there is a spiritual dimension to that evil. We don’t need to leap too quickly to demons (human beings have a spiritual dimension, and are quite capable of doing plenty of their own evil), but nor do we need to rule them out. They are part of reality.
2. We don’t need to become too interested in demons, either to fear them or to hunt them down. We are not encouraged to engage with demons, but to preach the good news of Jesus – and it is that good news which defeats the demons anyway.
3. If we do suspect we have encountered demonic activity, the thing to do is trust and pray. Jesus is victorious.
The reasons we avoid talking about angels and demons are broadly the same as the reasons we don’t talk much about miraculous healing: we have taken in a big dose of materialism and naturalism from the surrounding culture, and we have seen Christian talk about miraculous healing being horribly abused (for example, by faith healers who make a great deal of money out of sick people, or in churches where people’s expectations of healing have been cruelly raised only to be dashed). But the New Testament is full of healings. What do we do with that?
A few thoughts:
1. Even in the NT, not everyone is healed. In a sense, that’s obvious: Jesus was only in one place, and for every person in Galilee who got healed, there were thousands in the world who stayed sick or died. But even around Jesus, not everyone was healed. And even the Apostle Paul was not healed of bodily ailments.
2. Although sometimes in the NT healing is a response to faith, sometimes there is no mention at all of faith, and the initiative seems to come completely from Jesus or the apostles. It is true that Jesus could not do many miracles where he met with determined unbelief, but it is also true that genuine faith does not always receive healing in the Bible.
3. The best way to see the healings in the Bible – and sometimes this is made explicit – is that they are signs. When Jesus heals someone from physical illness, it is a sign of the resurrection. Even when people like Lazarus were raised from the dead, they would die again; but their raising was a sign of the raising up at the last day which Jesus would bring about through the power of his own resurrection.
4. Because the message of the resurrection is true, and because the Lord Jesus still graciously gives us signs of that truth in the present age, we should not hesitate to pray for healing, with faith that God is able to do this, and the knowledge that it is ‘the sort of thing’ that God does.
5. When people are healed miraculously, we should praise God – this is all his grace – and we should receive the mercy of healing as a sign of God’s greater mercy in offering eternal life through his Son. When people are not healed miraculously, we should still look to the greater mercy: God offers eternal life with him, next to which physical healing is a small thing.